Articles written for various community newspapers in the Lower Mainland, B.C. and special interest print and online magazines

Monday, May 31, 2010

Exotic Ice cream

A sommelier of frozen cream, a barista of sorbet, Vince Misceo of La Casa Gelato will scoop you off your feet with his 218 flavours of handmade ice cream. His shop is a bright pink eyesore stationed in the most unlikely of places - the industrial section of Vancouver, blocks away from the Downtown Eastside. But for those with a hankering for an exotic sugar fix, the store is a destination no matter the distance. Tourists from Hong Kong will stop by to order 5 litres of durian gelato to take on their flights back as a souvenir. Australians can feel at home with Vegemite ice cream. The Persian community empties the store with buckets of akbar mashti – a mixture of saffron, rosewater and pistachio. For the health nut indulging in guilty pleasures there is wild fennel and dandelion root. At the moment he and his children – true to the Italian culinary legacy of a family recipe passed through the generations – are working on Filipino garju, a fish dish served with green mango.

“I come up with things that never existed before but then sometimes you get customers in from whatever place they're coming from and the first thing they say is, 'Misceo, you've got everything but you don't have what I have in my country,'” he says.

He then makes it his saccharine mission to come up with a taste that parallels what his customers are looking for.

The recipes are simple – cream, eggs, white sugar a bit of lemon to sharpen the taste other.

“I can do it, you can do it, anybody can do it,” he claims.

But beyond this, Misceo is as secret as Willy Wonky about what goes on in his workshop behind the store. When Martha Stewart filmed his show for The Learning Channel she was barred from seeing where the magic happens. For a while, even his wife wasn't allowed a peek.

The inventions are made with real fruit, no extracts or colouring. They adjust the sugar levels depending on which fruit they are using in the base. If the concoction is too sweet, it won't freeze, he explains. Some flavours like the highly sought after cherimoya is only available when in season.

When Misceo started the business in 1982, he used his children as guinea pigs. “I would look at their faces to see whether it was good or bad or otherwise,” he said.

While some flavours don't make it to the shelf, Misceo gambles with flavours that pass the initial taste test of his kids. Then it goes to the store where six or seven employees hustle like stock brokers behind the counter scooping small spoons of curry and garlic for curious and adventurous customers to palette.

“You come and you try it if you like it we'll keep it on the shelf and if you don't we put it aside,” he said.

Misceo is equally as secretive about which flavour he has a soft spot for.

“People say 'What's your favourite' and I say, 'What's my favourite and what's your favourite are two different things,'” he said.
You'll just have to have a lick for yourself. Discretionary advice: allow ample time for determining whether a scoop of Guiness would best accompany a scoop of wasabi or basil.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Faery Style Fashion

If you want to make a tutu you've got to grow a ruffle patch.

This is according to designer Kelsey Faery who—aside from being living proof that winged creatures of the forest exist—is widely known as “the tutu girl”. Kelsey's signature pieces—her circus-like tailcoats called Faery Tails, tiny top hats, ruffle leg-warmers and tutus—are becoming increasingly popular wardrobe staples for those travelling the West Coast summer festival circuit.

“Sewing” the seeds of creativity with a colour palette that puts a rainbow to shame, Kelsey is a DIY lifesaver of fashion, throwing a multi-coloured lifebuoy to the non-descript jeans and t-shirt automatons tangled up in the John-Doe-threads of mainstream trends.

She lives up to her name with her hue-phoric philosophy that life is more fun when you're rolling along with the colour wheel.

“The way I think of faeries are people who brighten people's day and lighten things up. They open people’s eyes to how much fun and good things there are in life.”

Her one-size-fits-all credo: the world needs more tutus.

Her mission is not a superficial one; wearing her costumes will lift you out of a funk and give the world a much needed rainbow paint job. Her productions are enough to make the colour-blind see. She even breaks down the barriers of colour discrimination and is careful not to express a favourite as it might offend the other colours.

Coming literally out of the woodwork—her first career was as a woodworker, she sold her first plywood creations to her parent's friends at 12—she started crafting while recovering from cutting part of her left ring finger off with a table saw while making a log picture frame when she was tired. Seven years ago, she made her first hat for the legendary 40,000-person Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. It was a basic pyramid structure covered with silk flowers and leaves. However, what launched her to underground circles of fame were her tutus that began as simple short affairs made out of a bit of crinoline and lace. She later developed longer elaborate tutus out of satin, lace, and organza which she named “Trutus” in homage to Judah Tru, the first boy she met who wore her tutus. She and six friends wandered around Burning Man camps in tutus for what became a regular tradition of celebrating Tutu Tuesdays. The celebration later became tea parties in Whistler and the legend grew from there.

It was shortly after her first “burn” that she hooked up with the Funginears, a trip hop band that wanted to borrow tutus from her collection for a beatboxing puppet show.

“They came up to Whistler to visit me [from the Sunshine Coast] and they saw my tutu collection. Not the ones I'd made but the ones I collected and they said, ‘I need to buy that one that one that one and that one’ and I was like, ‘Well, that's my tutu collection I can't sell them,’ and they were like, ‘You need to make tutus’.”

The head Funginear bought one of her costumes for his girlfriend and with the $600 she earned from the deal she planted what she affectionately refers to as her first ruffle patch.
Since 2007, Kelsey has been spending two months out of the year in a bungalow in Bali, outsourcing her line to a team of ruffle faeries who rustle up ruffles fast enough to feed her growing clientele. She then follows her shipping container back to North America where she weaves her way up and down the Canadian and American coastline from May to September. This year she'll trade in ski season on Whistler Mountain for her native Australia where she'll sell her “wears” on the circuit there , before making a stopover in Portugal for BOOMFest.

She uses recycled fabric, satin, lace and organza but the secret success of her ingredients is in the alchemy of how it all comes together: she adds time to make it timeless, a splash of majik dust, and lots of love.

“People look my work and say, ‘This is the most awesome thing I've ever seen. I've never seen so many ruffles.’ When people actually put them on and start moving around, it sort of swooshes people fall in love with it. It's pretty amazing. People are pretty awestruck. I think people don't realize that things like this can be created. They just expect clothing to be your everyday jeans and t-shirt and when they see something different that they can actually wear they are like, ‘I need some of this’.”

Kelsey insists that everyday wear should be a costume, that one doesn't need an excuse for over-the-top creative expression and shouldn't be shy about standing out.

“You could take that approach and say, ‘Oh you should wear it when you're out dancing on New Years' Eve or for Halloween,’ but what I say is, ‘Oh my sister has this tailcoat and she wears it to the grocery store and you should wear costume every day. Wear costume for no reason. If your feeling a bit glum, throw a tutu on and it'll give you a bit of juice for the day’.”

If this sounds opaque, one needs only to visit their studio—The Creation Station—at the Function Junction, Whistler's industrial warehouse park. She also welcomes those seeking creative asylum. Established seven years ago, Kelsey and her former partner, painter Chili Tom, moved to Whistler after leaving their basement studio, The Kitkat Ranch in Pemberton. Each wall in The Creation Station is painted a different colour and when you cast your eyes toward the ceiling of the 1500-square-foot warehouse you see nothing but the underside of tutus, suspended like man-made puffy sunset clouds.

Similar to how some might imagine the North Pole pre-Christmas, The Creation Station is a way for Kelsey to encourage people to craft.

“I guess what The Creation Station was about was having a place where people can come and make things and have someone there to inspire them and help them along with their projects.”

Not caught up in the tight-knit folds of the fashion elite, she is happy to go it alone, gladly stitching her unique style for a devout patchwork of followers without recognition.

“To tell you the truth I don't really aspire to be like any other designers. I admire a lot of the really amazing catwalk work where it's all really over-the-top elaborate pieces, but I really just enjoy doing my own work and I'm kind of already living my ideal life: people come to me with a chunk of money and say, ‘Make me something beautiful in this colour,’ and I do.”

Just as a faery would do.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Gretchen Elsner: Avant Garb

Fashion victims, read no further.

Wearable art appreciators who would lay down their life for a custom-made, three-piece suit made out of turn-of-the-century potato flour sacks salvaged from an old barn, meet your maker: Gretchen Elsner.

Elsner is a horse whisperer of fabric, letting it tell her what it wants to be made into. In the case of the flour sack suit, the burlap said, “Yippee! I thought I was going to rot.”

She rescued the sacks from a farmer who was cleaning out his barn and didn't know what to do with them.

When she isn't commissioned, to make an article of clothing, her journey from concocted idea to first stitch to wearer is kismet. She described it as being compelled to make clothing for people she is fated to meet, adopting an 'if you build it, they will come' philosophy that has carried her professionally for the ten years her business has blossomed.

Call it fate that Elsner, who is originally from Georgia, was working at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver when she was denied status as a permanent resident. The reason: she moved in with her goddaughter's mother for a spell to help out after the dad split and mom had to go back to work. As a result, she couldn't provide adequate rental receipts proving she had been in Canada for three years.

She was forced give up her job making garment installations that were shown all over the world to move back to Georgia and work as a waitress at the roadside diner chain The Waffle House to support herself and her 10-year-old son, Julian.

Read on to find out more reasons to hate bureaucracy. Kafka could have based The Castle on Elsner for an equally exasperating read.

Elsner's path didn't involve studying at a prestigious art school or making inroads into the fashion world. However, her success story is still hunger-driven. Literally.

“It was after I was bitten by a rabbid cat...” (Only a bad excuse for not having your homework done could sound more implausible).

“It was in the first trimester in my pregnancy. The animal had come into the place we were living, which was just a dump at the time, so I sued the landlady and lost the lawsuit. So then I had all these exorbitant medical expenses related to high frequency ultrasounds and vaccinations because the American medical system is really screwy and it was just considered an extraneous condition so I had this massive debt to pay off. So that's when I started making clothes for commercial sale.”

Where is Karl Lagerfeld when you need an audience?

Elsner, whose most recent expedition to find reclaimed fabric included fishing soiled satin out of the trash at the Habitat for Humanity store, has gone from rags to riches and back again. She is currently living in a trailer which she designed and built from the ground up, teaching herself how to work with rigid steel.

She has also made clothes out of old sails, Tyvek housing wrap made by DuPont and the metal screens used to make soy milk. She has put together costumes for Full Circle, a West Coast native performance group that turns cedar bark into fabric in the traditional way of First Nations peoples. With a soft spot for antiquity, she has made restoration pieces out of hand-crocheted lace.

Perhaps her most signature pieces are her elaborate, mixed media pop-up books. One pop-up book is called The Banana Slug story. When Elsner was first hiking in British Columbia, she had never seen a banana slug, native to the Pacific coast rainforest. She was so taken by the creature, she decided to write a tale about its quest to find love. Fifteen inches and seven pages including a fold out Victoria peep show, the books are lovingly created not for children, but rather, for the slumbering adult imagination.

“This banana slug gets picks up by a starling and taken out of the woods and into the city and so this banana slug finds himself pursued by all these common variety slugs. So it's moving slowly toward a spigot and it thinks it's moving toward another banana slug then it sees it's own reflection and gets so excited it fertilizes itself.”

The pop-up books is a carryover from Elsner's beginnings as a playwright when she won a Scholastic literary award at 16. She produced another play with the cash prize and continued to put on shows, including a radio play for National Public Radio, all the while designing the set and the costumes. It was when she became a mother that she turned her efforts exclusively to making costumes. She also performed in her husband's band when they went on tour, wedging her rack in with band gear and setting up on the sidewalk at farmers markets along the way.

“When my son was just born he was a really good sleeper and when my husband was at work he'd go to bed at six and then my husband would get home at nine so I had about three hours every night and I was making costumes for performing,” she said.

All at the ripe old age of 20.

Humble about her career, Elsner's approach to clothing is “we've all got to wear it.” Where the fashion industry falls short of making bold cultural statements is that it is too image-conscious.

“Fashion to me has a lot to do with allowing easy communication between people. Two men in a business suit meet each other and, aside from just a handshake and a smile, there's already a kind of instant rapport and I think that a lot of times fashion helps facilitate easy communication. It puts a lot more onus on a person to dress themselves appropriately or in a particular style so it makes it easy for someone to come up and interact with you,” she said.

Wearable art, on the other hand, makes a comment about the human condition and creates an environment that allows for unique encounters.

“To make something that is obviously a piece of artwork, in the best of cases it will really inspire someone to stop and have an experience that is outside their normal everyday awareness. Fashion doesn't necessarily try to do that. There are other agendas in mind when you're creating a collection of clothing where societal expectations take precedent over individual expression,” she said.

Rather than follow fads or create passing trends, Elsner assembles timeless clothes that people hold onto and hand down to future generations.

“A piece of clothing doesn't last over time unless it is really cared for,” she said, “To meet people who really enjoy something that I've made and inspires them to take care of it helps me know that the things I'm doing will last beyond my lifetime and maybe continue to provide information and culture and sustenance for people longer than I can imagine.”

And what she can imagine goes a long way.